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Adobe: Open source is hard

Company has been struggling to maximize benefits derived from open-sourcing Flex, but these benefits will prove elusive until it displaces itself as center of Flex universe.

In November, I joined a panel at Adobe Max focused on the promise and pitfalls of open source.

I wrote at the time that open source is not a binary decision for Adobe Systems (or, really, any company): it's hard work and not the right answer to every question.

The Register on Tuesday picks up on the "hard work" theme and runs with it, detailing lessons learned from open-sourcing Flex, Adobe's Flash development tool. In addition to "treading a fine line between tipping off competitors to its Flex plans through the open-source work while coaxing the community to buy into the Flex road map," Adobe is learning that community involvement doesn't come cheaply...or sometimes doesn't come at all.

There is a pervasive myth in the industry that "community" forms around pretty much any well-designed open-source project. The opposite is true. Most projects are devoid of community in any meaningful sense. This becomes even more pronounced in projects that are dominated by a single vendor.

It's not that good open-source projects are company-free. They aren't. They're the opposite: Linux, Apache, Eclipse, etc., are filled to the brim with companies. In fact, most open-source projects are simply amalgamations of corporate interests (vendors, enterprise IT, system integrators, etc.), including "community" projects like Linux, Joomla, and Apache.

The difference between these and Adobe's Flex, however, is that there are multiple counter-balancing corporate interests involved, not just one. If Adobe wants to make Flex a true open-source project (and it's very likely that it doesn't, and for very good reasons), it needs to put Flex into a foundation structure, similar to Eclipse, Mozilla, and others, just as many have clamored for Sun to do with Java and OpenOffice.org.

In sum, open source is exceptionally hard work, but the job is made doubly difficult when one company seeks to retain control of a project.